Making a difference in young lives

Elizabeth Wilder ‘02
Tenderloin Childcare Center

“My Time with the Turtles of TLC”Before actually beginning work at the Tenderloin Childcare Center In San Francisco, I went by the center just for an hour one afternoon to see the center, meet the staff briefly, and talk momentarily about the philosophy of the center with the assistant director. The old YMCA hotel building that houses TLC is actually quite beautiful, though it admittedly appears somewhat out of place in a rather run down neighborhood. I was warned when I was dropped off by a friend that the corner adjacent to TLC was notorious for being a big drug dealing corner; I became quickly accustomed to the motley crew of people peddling random wares on the sidewalk we used on the way to the playground each day. Once inside TLC, the assistant director who I’d spoken with on the phone before arriving showed me around the center, which is actually the large old ballroom for the hotel; it had been partitioned with low walls into three different classrooms for three different age groups. The stage for the ballroom had been transformed into a soft play area where the kids can bounce around and jump as much as they like, and a loft had been constructed above the two older classrooms to serve as a make believe “house” kind of area for the kids. The whole place is a clutter of colors and sounds; there are piles upon piles of boxes and Tupperware filled with toys and makeshift play items. Everything about the place seemed makeshift; the “loft” seemed composed of random leftover wood pieces and the stage was equipped with mattresses, soft foam pieces with fabric casings sewn around them, and a metal bar with two small hammocks hanging from it to serve as swings. Compared to the pristine and newly equipped childcare center I’d worked at before, TLC seemed like it had been thrown together with whatever materials could be found. However, there was a kind of vitality and energy in the air that I had never sensed at the other childcare center, and, as I came to realize well, there is also a wonderful and passionate philosophy at the foundation of TLC that is far more important than the physical environment of the center. Rather than the physical environment being makeshift, I came to discover that it was instead homemade with careful concern and attention to the children’s needs and interests, ever evolving, and ingeniously utilizing even the most basic items as enjoyable and stimulating playthings for the children.

That first day Graham, the assistant director, sat me down and briefly explained some policies of the center and talked for awhile about the philosophy of TLC, which I came to fully understand and internalize over the coming weeks. I found the philosophy of TLC to be immensely important in my experience at the center, in my understanding of child care in general, and I think that it will continue to be relevant in my dealings with children- and adults actually- in the future. Basically, the staff of TLC is committed to loving the children at TLC. There is no traditional punishment at TLC; rather, if a child says something hurtful to another child, a teacher would say that it makes her sad to hear the children talk to each other like that. Or if a child is being particularly difficult with a teacher, that teacher will tell the child that she cannot be with the child while she is behaving in that way and will then seek the help of another teacher who can start anew dealing with whatever the problem may be. Basically, the children are always informed as to why certain reactions occur; instead of just telling a child it’s “bad” or “good” to do a certain thing, vague concepts that aren’t necessarily fully understood by the 3 year old mind, staff members talk through the feelings that accompany certain responses in people. Also, the children’s emotions are always valued and validated at TLC. Instead of telling a child to stop crying, teachers will hold that child and talk to him about how he feels, saying, “I know you’re sad and I’m sorry” and comforting the child. The TLC staff recognizes that certain children at such a young age don’t have the capacity to understand “sharing” and therefore tries to provide similar or alternate toys or activities for children instead of forcing sharing. And the school prioritizes experimentation, exploring, and the importance of process over product, even if it means making a big mess. TLC recognizes that such young children are supposed to make messes while exploring, making mistakes and learning. If a child decides to do something entirely different from what was intended with the supplied materials, then the staff sees that as a wonderful exploration for the child and a wonderful way to encourage creativity and develop skills. So, even if the kids don’t play in a roomy, spic and span, state of the art center, they do play in an atmosphere that is entirely focused on their well being, their development, and their freedom to explore their world at their own pace and to feel safe while doing so.

There are many amazing things about TLC, including this philosophy and a phenomenal staff, but the thing that made me love the place the most was the kids. These children were truly some of the most unbelievable kids in the entire world. There’s nothing more spectacular than the experience of so closely witnessing the links between a child’s environment and his personality formation, watching her develop language or memory, or gaining the trust and love of children who have every reason to have trouble trusting. Spending a lot of quality time with 3 year olds makes you realize how unbelievably developed and capable a three year old can be; they observe and retain so much more from their environment than we ever really recognize. They can remember and recall tiny details from conversations weeks before, and, even just physically they can amaze you on the jungle gym or with a ball.

One of children in the class is a tiny, unbelievably adorable, quiet, Chinese-Vietnamese boy. His first language is Chinese, though for the first half of my time at TLC, this child didn’t speak at all. He was often unanimated and seemed withdrawn, but at certain times once he had gained a particular level of comfort around whomever he had been spending time with, he’d laugh out loud, sometimes yelling happily, and jumping around or playing gleefully. He is a tiny child who weighs next to nothing, and at moments when he is feeling upbeat and energetic, he would grab my hands, climb up my legs and then flip over backwards over and over again. He would often be in these playful moods after the several hours we spent at the park each day, after he’d had a chance to really play with a teacher or student and let loose a bit. On the subsequent walks home from the park (and on good days, on the walk there also), he would suddenly drop his feet out from under him and dangle gleefully in the air, holding my hand and laughing. So I could be forewarned and prepared to support his weight when he decided to play this little game, we developed a system in which he squeezed my hand just before he wanted to swing; then we’d walk, bounce, and swing all the way back to school.

He also has unbelievably developed fine motor skills; he amazed us all each day with the seemingly difficult tasks he performed with a kind of patience and attention span that is unheard of in children his age. He would be completely intent and occupied stringing beads on yarn for long periods of time. When other kids tired of the activity after only a few beads, he filled up two strands of yarn quickly, and then, when I saw that he was still interested and that the task seemed too simple, I cut him a piece of string five times the length of all the others so he could fill it up, which he did. We made flower chains a couple of times when we took field trips to parks where there is grass and flowers, which usually just meant me making them for a child or two who was sitting with me. My last day of work, however, I continued to slice the hole in the stem of the flower with my fingernail but I let him actually stick the next flower through the hole, which he did perfectly. Then it occurred to me that he could probably slice the tiny stem as well, and, though that task requires very fine motor skills, this child performed it perfectly on his first shot, and before long he was making the flower chain practically on his own.

The most incredible part of working with this boy was slowly coming to understand how much he really knew and had simply kept quiet throughout his time at TLC. I missed two days of work one week because I was sick, and, upon returning to work on Monday, one of the other teachers in my classroom announced that this little boy had started talking while I was gone. This was a child who had said only a few words total in his entire time at TLC, and he had suddenly begun to talk. This is not to say that he talked incessantly, but that, with a little bit of prompting and assuming that he was feeling comfortable, he would speak. We had always read together, and I began pointing to different objects in books and having him identify them. I was amazed at his store of vocabulary, but then I slowly began to realize how much he knew. One day at the park we sang a song together, and when I asked him which song he wanted to sing next, he responded by saying “ABCs” and then proceeded to sing the entire alphabet with me, a task that many of the children who were native speakers of English had not yet learned. I then realized that he was also capable of counting quite high as well. My astonishment reached its peak when we were reading a book about pets one day and we were pointing to the word at the top of each page which corresponded with a picture of a particular animal. He easily went through the book, pointing to the word “Cat” and saying “cat” out loud when we were on the cat page, for example. At this point, just to expose him to the different letters in the word, I spelled it for him. He repeated the spelling after me, but then he really amazed me when we turned the page and he looked at the picture of a puppy, pointed to word “Dog” and said, “dog, D-O-G,” his tiny finger pointing to and identifying each individual letter. As we finished the book, I realized that he could recognize and identify both the upper and lower case of every letter of the alphabet.

There was also a young girl in the class who could be nearly impossible to deal with and who could also be the sweetest, most affectionate child you could imagine. She is afflicted with sensory defensiveness, a problem in interpreting sensory information that can make even the smallest discomfort a huge and overwhelming trial. Not having the end stitch in her socks line up perfectly with her toes inside her shoes could bother her tremendously, and getting her to put on her coat before we left for the park could be extremely difficult because she just couldn’t get comfortable while wearing it. She can be startlingly stubborn and strong-willed, and her temper tantrums can be quite an event. She is very aware of how to manipulate, or at least to affect, the way others react to certain situations. If she suddenly becomes really angry because her frustration at a task overwhelms her, she would often turn that frustration to anger against one of the teachers or another student, saying that she doesn’t like that particular target, as if she is trying to arouse similar frustration in the people around her. However, she also possesses an unusual compassion that can be quite moving. She adores small babies and would be always ecstatic to lean in over a stroller or cradle to peak at a sleeping baby. Her eyes would light up and her movements would become specifically careful and gentle as she watched the smaller child. She was also particularly protective of and gentle with the bugs we found on the playground sometimes. And when she is in a good mood, she will offer incessant hugs and repeatedly request stories, ask to be held, or giggle constantly while pretending she doesn’t want to be tickled.

A third child was a precious little boy whose parents are divorced and who lives a life torn between his Spanish-speaking mother’s house and his father’s traditionally Arabic home. This small boy served as a walking example to me of how conflict and confusion in a home life can lead to confusion and inner turmoil elsewhere in a child’s life. This child has the capability to be the sweetest, most inquisitive and curious, and most affectionate child in the classroom, but he also is quite capable of throwing a huge temper tantrum and making a big scene when he is angry or frustrated. Watching this child work and paying attention to the questions he asks, it becomes evident that he is trying to understand and make sense of the multiple worlds he inhabits; he’s trying to understand what is and isn’t right in a place where two different authority figures condone different things and condemn one another. I really learned how to talk to this child and came to understand that the best way to get him to calm down when he started to get angry or sad was to ask him about his father and what he does with his father or to simply have him verbalize some of the different things he has constantly going on in his life; it was amazing to me how often a visit with his father and a particularly “eventful” day at school corresponded. This boy also showed me just how observant such young children can be and how manipulative they can learn to be as well. I wear a necklace every day that was a gift from my younger brother; it’s a glass teardrop that has water in it and tiny opal flakes floating inside. The kids were always mesmerized by the necklace, and this boy, who after asking endless questions had learned the names of all my family members, had also acquired the knowledge that the necklace was a gift from my little brother and that it was very special to me, so he knew to be especially gentle when looking at it. One day late in the afternoon, this boy was playing with another child when, seemingly out of nowhere, he became furious at another child and began throwing boxes of toys around the room in his anger. I had been playing happily with him just before this eruption occurred, and, since he looked like he might try to hit the other child who was involved, I picked him up and removed him from the scene to talk to him about why he was angry. Although he wasn’t originally angry at me, his anger turned to me once I started talking to him, and I could tell that his frustration was overwhelming him. As some sort of desperate act of frustration, I saw him look up at me, down at my necklace, and up at me again before reaching down for my necklace and yanking as hard as he could, going for the one spot where he knew I was vulnerable. The necklace didn’t break, but I was shocked at how deliberate and manipulative this tiny little mind could be. I was also gripped by the depth and the integration of the observations he made on a daily basis, and it terrified me to think that some parents think that because their child is only 3, anything can be said or done in front of them. Although this little boy was actually one of the children I felt closest to, this one particular incident stands out in my mind as a reminder of how much small children can understand from what goes on in their environments.

I could tell stories for pages and pages about the individual children themselves or about little events that happened from day to day, small triumphs and frustrating steps backwards. At TLC, I was exposed to some of the most beautiful and some of the most heartwrenching scenes I’ve ever experienced before. The families of the children showed me many different aspects of the trials of raising a family with limited resources in a neighborhood that could so often make things only more difficult; there were families that absolutely astounded me with their drives and motivation despite their situations, whose resilience was so admirable and whose ability to overcome hardships was amazing. There were also situations that disgusted me, parenting decisions that saddened me, and, though I try not to judge, especially having seen the trials so many of them struggle with just to get by, I couldn’t help but be disappointed for the family and the child. More often, though, the hope of these parents radiated from them and their trust and dedication to TLC was warming. Some of these parents and grandparents left particularly special impressions on me that give me considerable hope for children in situations that can so often seem hopeless in the long run.

My last day of work was undoubtedly one of the most heartwrenching days of my life; I had no choice but to cry at certain (long) parts of the day. I was touched by the atmosphere of love that surrounded me and deeply saddened at the thought of leaving the precious children I had learned to love so much. Dealing with their sadness at the knowledge of my departure was the most difficult part of all; it made me question whether my coming had made some positive impression on their lives or whether I would become in their memories just another person who had abandoned them. I made them a book that had pictures of us in it and that explained where I had come from and why I had to go back there. Some of the children were confused that I was going from being their teacher to being a student at another school far away from them, and most of them had many questions for me, including some sad ones like, “you’re going far far away and you’re never going to come back ever again?” I went home that day with my arms full of pictures that had been drawn for me and several wonderful gifts, including a picture frame that one of the other teachers in the room, a woman I’d really come to respect and admire, had filled with pictures of the kids and teachers in our classroom, “the Turtle Room.” The picture frame sits right above my computer now, and four pictures that different children drew decorate my walls. Early on in that last day, I asked for a sticker from the Chinese-Vietnamese boy I mentioned earlier; he had a whole sheet of Beatrice Potter calendar reminder stickers, and I asked him to pick out one for me since it was my last day. He scanned the sheet and then picked out a Peter Rabbit that said “Remember” underneath it; when I showed it to one of the other teachers in the room, she joked that he could probably actually read it and picked it out on purpose. I put the sticker on the back of my driver’s license so I would see it often and would indeed remember my time at TLC. Of course, it’s turned out that I need no reminder; the children and workers of TLC affected me greatly, and I can’t help but examine many situations, involving education or politics or psychology, from their viewpoints or with their best interests in mind. I feel quite lucky to have been a part of TLC, and I know that my time there will make an important impact on many of my life decisions.